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  • Writer's pictureDave Caperton

How One Person Can Fix a Traffic Jam

How One Person Can Fix a Traffic Jam

The Power of One Person to Solve Problems Requires Two Key Attitudes

My dad was in sales for over 40 years. His territory was all of Ohio and some areas in the surrounding states and he logged well over 2 million miles. All the years of driving made him an expert behind the wheel under every condition imaginable. He knew how to bring a car out of a skid, how to spare wear and tear on his brakes down a steep mountain grade and how to parallel park in the tightest to slots in three practiced moves.

One day when I was about 15 or so, I was riding along with my dad in a long traffic backup because of a lane closure a couple of miles ahead. Dad turned to me and said, "I'm going to show you how to unsnarl a traffic jam."

I looked at the endless line of brake lights ahead and then turned to my dad smiling in anticipation of the punch line, but I could see he wasn’t joking. “The key is to stay off the brake and make room.”

Then he began backing off from the car ahead until a wide space was created. Into that space other drivers cut in and raced up on the car ahead. Dad just backed off more. Over and over again, cars driving in the lane that was about to close used the space he allowed, and every time, my dad just continued to make room. Sometimes a driver behind our car would honk to get my father to fill up the space. Even I complained that it wasn’t really fair that drivers were zooming around us and cutting in from the other lane like line jumpers at an amusement park. But through it all, my father remained serene and committed to his plan and soon the flow began to pick up. The speed rose from 5 to 10 to 20 and then, just like that, we were back to freeway speed. I was impressed if not entirely convinced that one person could make such an impact.

Last October, I came across this headline in the Wall Street Journal: "How One Driver Can Prevent a Traffic Jam,” by Sue Schellenbarger, who reported:

There is a growing body of research finding that an individual driver, by preventing bottlenecks and maintaining a steady speed, can sometimes single-handedly ease or break up a traffic jam. The techniques are simple, though some of them—such as leaving a large gap between your car and the one in front and freely letting other drivers cut in—feel counterintuitive to most drivers.

I had to smile, thinking about my dad and wishing I could tell him that his methods had been vindicated.

So, if it works so well, why don’t more drivers stuck in traffic an average of over 40 hours every year use such a simple approach to spend less time crawling along freeways?

The answer, I think, is two-fold. For one thing, if you do what my dad did, you’ll have to take some criticism in the form of blaring horns and obscene gestures from the unenlightened drivers around you. At the very least it’s unlikely that anyone will thank you. My dad never got a hip-hip-hooray for his jam-busting tactics. In fact, a lot of the time he got just the opposite. Drivers behind him saw him as a slowpoke and one of the reasons for the crawl.

They honked and flashed their lights to urge him to close up the gap he had created because other people who hadn’t earned the privilege were zipping into that space he opened for them. Those horn-blowers thought it unfair and frankly, they had a point. It WAS unfair. Impatience and a failure to plan ahead by those drivers who waited until the last second to merge from a lane that was ending actually were rewarded with a place in line ahead of those who had gotten over early as a responsible driver should.

But here’s the thing; to insist on fairness could mean slowing everyone down even more. Those are key elements in practical problem-solving. Backing off and letting others in is concerned exclusively with providing a solution to a problem and that, like it or not, is sometimes incompatible with fairness or recognition. My dad was willing to take criticism even though he felt sure his actions would help everyone and he accepted that some would be given an advantage they hadn’t earned. It was an example of something Daniel Goleman would eventually call emotional intelligence.

Can you imagine what innovations or solutions to your challenges might be possible if you dispensed with any concern about:

A. who will get the credit, and

B. who is or isn’t worthy of the benefit?

One person with the emotional IQ to set aside personal ego and judgment of others has the power to change the world around them so long as they accept that the world around them may never know nor appreciate who made that change.

At least in one instance, I know. Thanks, Dad.

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